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The Minnesota breakfast crew vs. the Twitterati: Cherishing a sense of perspective

Adam J. Copeland
Adam J. Copeland

HALLOCK, MINN. — People are often surprised when they learn that I, the pastor of a small rural church, am a big advocate of social media. Frequently, in my town of 1,100 people, I push people of faith to use social media in positive ways. Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging, even cell-phone texting can serve as a powerful tool for building good community. But when I speak or write on social media, I always do so with a caveat: Social media will not save us. Social media is fine and dandy, but it's used by folk who make mistakes.

In fact, perhaps the most compelling aspects of social media also make it easily abused. I'll soon get to a painful example from the Tucson shooting. But first, let me tell you about my breakfast — no, not a tweet about what I had for breakfast, but about how I have breakfast every Wednesday morning.

On Wednesdays I have breakfast at the local diner in Hallock (sure, there's only one restaurant in town, but the Caribou Grill is mighty tasty). Each week, I walk in and take a seat at the center table with the crew. The crew, or some conglomeration of it, is there every day save Sundaym when the diner is closed. A busy day will bring 15 men or so, but it can dwindle to half a dozen when the snowbirds fly. They're all men, mostly retired. I'd guess the average age minus me at around 80 years young.

I look forward to these mornings not for the food but for the conversation. These guys make talking an art form. I mostly try to stay out of the way and let them at it. We cover — without really meaning to — sports, politics, local happenings, old hunting stories, family updates, condolences, how things used to be, spring floods, and there's always somebody lambasting the DNR.

There's no hurry, plenty of coffee
What I love about these breakfasts is the way the banter happens. Sometimes voices get raised. Many times controversies get stirred. But it all happens at a table where you can talk things through. There's no hurry. There's plenty of coffee. There's always tomorrow. So the crew talks at things knowing they don't have to figure it all out in 140 characters before lunch. What's the hurry, anyway — it's cold outside!

Now contrast this with my experience Jan. 8 watching social media in the immediate wake of the tragic Tucson shooting. Within minutes of the shooting, friends I love and respect put up, on their Facebook walls, reactionary rhetoric accusing the Tea Party and Sarah Palin of guilt-by-association before Jared Loughner's name was even released. News outlets I respect incorrectly reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died (though I have to say NPR's apology was first-rate). Acrimonious accusatory quotes were being slung around Twitter faster than beards frost on a Minnesota ski trail. Sensible people pointed fingers left and right before the blood had even dried. On the whole, this was not social media at its best, but fearful, angry people lashing out against those with whom they deeply disagree.

Please hear me: I'm not saying Twitter and Facebook are bad. I love them both and use them extensively as fantastic tools for life and ministry. But I am saying that on that day at least, they were used as instruments to voice our lesser side.

More time meant more careful reflection
At McGuire on Media Tim McGuire wrote glowingly of the Arizona Republic's coverage of the Tucson shooting. The Sunday edition came out less than 24 hours after the event, but even that short time allowed for more careful reflection and fact-checking. McGuire's piece argues why traditional newspapers matter, but his larger point is in favor of journalists and citizens who reflect, not react — people who investigate before they prognosticate.

The Caribou Grill breakfast crew is far from perfect. But the manner in which those men meet — slowly, carefully, repeatedly, knowing each other well, with coffee — does imbue the gatherings with a sense of perspective I cherish, one that I sometimes miss on the lighting-fast platforms of social media. So when I go to breakfast Wednesday mornings I do something very rare for me: I leave my smartphone in the car.

Adam J. Copeland is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Hallock, Minn., and a freelance writer. He blogs at A Wee Blether.

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